Roaches and Broken Locks: Mark and Rick Bove’s Growing Empire of Affordable Rentals Vexes Code Enforcers | Seven Days Vermont

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Roaches and Broken Locks: Mark and Rick Bove’s Growing Empire of Affordable Rentals Vexes Code Enforcers 

Published November 3, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated December 13, 2022 at 7:21 p.m.

click to enlarge Rebecca Mamy and Kongwa Shangalume with two of their children - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Rebecca Mamy and Kongwa Shangalume with two of their children

Rebecca Mamy and Kongwa Shangalume stepped off a plane at Burlington International Airport in February 2019, anxious to settle into their new country. A refugee caseworker escorted the Congolese couple to a cluster of townhouse-style apartments in Winooski, where a two-bedroom unit at 300 Main Street had been reserved for them and their two young children. 

They put down their bags. The apartment, built in 1986, wasn't exactly old, but it struck the new arrivals as worn. The back door didn't have a lock. The caseworker provided a brief tour, instructing them on how to use the stove and where to find the light switches. Almost immediately, they spotted cockroaches scuttling along the floor.

To learn more

Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio teamed up in June to investigate when their respective reporters noticed separate court cases involving Mark and Rick Bove's properties. VPR's Liam Elder-Connors and Seven Days' Derek Brouwer reviewed court files and obtained other public records for this account. They also interviewed regulators and current and former tenants of the brothers' buildings. In addition to this print story, radio pieces will air on VPR. Listen in at or on VPR's daily news podcast, "The Frequency."

The couple were dismayed but too nervous at that moment to speak up.

Shangalume and Mamy didn't know that cockroaches were a recurring problem at the Winooski complex, where rent was $1,464 a month. They didn't know that it was owned and managed by Rick Bove, a landlord with a long track record of renting substandard apartments. And they had no idea that if they asked Bove to exterminate the roaches, he would stick them with the bill.

"Bove" is a household name across Vermont for the family's unfussy Italian cuisine, served for decades at their legendary Burlington restaurant and more recently available as jarred pasta sauces at grocery stores. But the sauce is only half of the family business. Rick and his brother, Mark Bove, also own a growing empire of more than 400 rental units across Chittenden County, St. Albans and all the way to Hartford.

A joint investigation by Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio has found that swaths of these rental properties are also plagued by neglect. Health and safety issues such as broken doors, leaky ceilings and loose handrails have been left unrepaired. Dumpsters overflow. Fire and emergency systems aren't properly maintained. Renters tolerate these conditions partly because Vermont's bare-bones system of housing code enforcement is ill-equipped to effectively resolve them. The brothers, meanwhile, profit from government subsidies intended to help the poor.

Months after buying a Georgia property in 2018 that he planned to redevelop, Rick Bove refused to fix a leaky water pump, leaving two tenants with unreliable faucets for months. In 2019, he ignored an emergency order from the Town of Colchester to fix a broken kitchen sink and remove the mold that had grown beneath it. Earlier this year, an Essex firefighter, responding to a woman stuck in an elevator of a Bove apartment building, reported to town officials that he nearly fell down a staircase after grabbing a handrail that was "literally coming off the wall."

Essex, Colchester and St. Albans Town have all used the courts to seek compliance in recent years, extracting $6,400 in settlements. Numerous former tenants have pursued Bove in small-claims court to recover their security deposits. Even those who won judgments have sometimes struggled to get their former landlord to pay up.

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Audio version of this story courtesy of Liam Elder-Connors, Vermont Public Radio

Mark and Rick Bove are principals in both family businesses, but each is responsible for the day-to-day management of one of them. Mark runs the pasta sauce factory in Milton. Rick oversees the rentals.

Rick Bove initially agreed to discuss the family's properties at length, saying he has "absolutely nothing to hide." But he did not pick up the phone for a scheduled October interview and then sent a text message declining to answer questions. His brother, Mark, and his mother, Josephine, who owns one of the apartment buildings with Rick, also declined to comment.

Rick Bove later emailed the news organizations a statement disputing "any allegation that we are not good landlords." It reads, in part: "We respond promptly to calls for repairs. We work collaboratively with tenants and the City to meet code requirements ... Any balanced consideration of our recent record demonstrates our commitment to providing affordable and safe housing."

A pattern of problems

click to enlarge Holes in the wall in the hallway of Monarch Apartments in Essex - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Holes in the wall in the hallway of Monarch Apartments in Essex

Unlike the vast majority of Vermont's aging rental stock, many Bove apartment complexes were built within the last 20 years. The buildings aren't fancy, but they're designed to be affordable. They're equipped with security systems, laundry rooms and elevators. Some have parking garages and rooftop solar panels. And unlike many landlords, Rick Bove rents to tenants with Section 8 rental assistance vouchers — nearly 100, currently — and to others who have few housing options, including refugees. 

But in Burlington, Bove's pattern of code violations has been an issue for years. And in 2018, a citizen organizer called attention to troubles at Bove's buildings outside Burlington and urged Vermonters to boycott the family's pasta sauce brand in protest. 

The problems have continued. A low point came in 2019, when a pair of state-chartered housing organizations that had helped fund construction of several of the apartment buildings threatened to make Bove pay back the money.

"There appears to be systematic maintenance and management failure throughout all Bove Brothers Realty properties," Vermont Housing Finance Agency inspector Kathy Curley wrote to Bove in October 2019, referring to six of the complexes. "Each property that I finally achieved access to revealed the total disregard of Vermont's Rental Housing Codes, and the health and safety of Residents."

Bove has since become more cooperative with those agencies, but the buildings still need work, and maintenance issues at some of his other properties have stacked up in recent months, Seven Days and VPR found.

At the same time, Bove is looking to build nearly 150 more units around the state. He's pitched at least 50 more apartments in the Essex Town Center and a 42-unit project in Montpelier. Preliminary plans for a 31-unit project in Georgia were submitted in 2020. In Burlington, he has long-standing plans to demolish the former family restaurant on Pearl Street and replace it with a hotel and 20 units of senior housing.

Seven Days and VPR surveyed the current conditions at two Bove apartment buildings last month upon the invitation of tenants.

Inside Monarch Apartments, a 30-unit complex in Essex, window ledges in common areas were littered with decaying food and live and dead insects. Large holes punched through drywall by a tenant who was being evicted remained more than a month after an inspector ordered them to be fixed.

click to enlarge Broken washing machine at Arbor Gardens in Colchester - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Broken washing machine at Arbor Gardens in Colchester

At the 37-unit Arbor Gardens in Colchester, several exterior doors did not lock, allowing anyone to enter. One of four coin-operated washing machines was broken, and another appeared to be held together by duct tape. Some residents had decorated their entryways with festive fall arrangements, but the carpeting around them was heavily stained and sticky and smelled rank in places. 

In these environments, stigmas and suspicions have become embedded. Some residents blame their neighbors for the poor conditions, attributing graffiti and broken mailbox lockers to drug dealers, scattered debris to tenants on Section 8, and cockroaches to immigrants. The handful of current Monarch and Arbor residents who talked to Seven Days and VPR said they feared retaliation if they spoke publicly about their landlord, though, as one longtime Arbor resident said, responsibility to maintain the complex rests with Bove: "I don't give a shit what color you are — you can be pink, purple, green, black, blue — but you shouldn't have to live like this."

The agency that administers the state's largest rental assistance program says that, in a tight housing market in which lower-income residents have very few choices, it has no option but to work with Bove.

"Mr. Bove has demonstrated a willingness to pretty much lease to anyone," said Kathleen Berk, executive director of the Vermont State Housing Authority. "So, he's fulfilling a need in that sense, because he is providing housing to the most vulnerable."

For Shangalume and Mamy, living in a Bove building became a source of anxiety, especially once Mamy became pregnant with the couple's third child. "What happens if the baby [is] sleeping and the cockroach goes in his nose, mouth or go through the ear?" she recalled of her worries at the time. 

Their landlord's daily concerns were far removed from theirs. In July 2020, as exterminators were treating the couple's apartment for roaches, Bove and his wife applied for a permit to build a nearly $1 million addition to their $1.6 million home on Lake Champlain in Colchester. The latest submitted plans involved relocating an outdoor spa terrace, building a second-floor home office, and installing a treadmill pool and sauna in the basement.

Family recipe

click to enlarge Mark and Rick Bove in front of the family restaurant in 2007 - ALISON REDLICH/USA TODAY NETWORK
  • Alison Redlich/USA Today Network
  • Mark and Rick Bove in front of the family restaurant in 2007

On December 7, 1991, the 50th anniversary of the legendary Bove's Café, Dick and Josephine Bove held a public celebration featuring a spaghetti-and-meatballs special at the original price, 35 cents. The event was also a debut of sorts: introducing the couple's sons, Rick and Mark.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would participate in a "ribbon cutting," according to a full-page ad in the Burlington Free Press, with the "third generation" of the Bove dynasty. The ad included yearbook-style photos of the boys — the younger Mark, a recent graduate of the University of Vermont, next to his bespectacled older brother, Rick — beneath photos of their parents and grandmother, Victoria, an Italian immigrant who had opened the restaurant on the same day that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. 

Dick, who died in 2016, was a working-class icon. He'd dabbled in local politics, effectively launching the political career of restaurant regular Bernie Sanders by playing spoiler in the 1981 Burlington mayoral race. He owned a number of small rentals around the city, but his focus was always the food.

Mark embraced the restaurant, fashioning himself as the "sauce boy" and soon parlaying the family's recipes into a line of packaged meatballs and marinara. Rick took over management of his father's rentals. In 2001, at age 37, Rick spearheaded plans to build an affordable apartment building next door to the restaurant. He called it Victoria Place, after his grandmother.

There was a hang-up. The project relied on donated municipal land and federal tax credit subsidies. That drew scrutiny of the poor condition of an existing rental just around the corner, then owned by Dick and managed by Rick. The apartment house on George Street was eighth on the list of Queen City properties with the most code violations; a ceiling had collapsed on a resident, the Burlington Free Press reported at the time. Rick complained to the paper about his legal obligation to make repairs because, he said, tenants were behind on rent: "A part of me says, philosophically, that isn't right."

Victoria Place got built, in part because the Boves promised the city that a major renovation at George Street was in the works.

In 2004, the city sued Rick Bove for trash container violations at a different Burlington property, one of many housing code violations that had been documented there. An unsigned legal memo from the time, still in city files, described Bove as someone who "promises everything and does nothing" and "does not comply with the law until pushed." The following year, an inspector obtained search warrants in order to gain access to some of the rentals.

In 2013, Bove properties, including the notorious George Street building, were still so problematic that Burlington officials threatened to yank the Bove's Café liquor license in order to compel Bove to make improvements.

Meanwhile, Bove had expanded dramatically Bove Brothers Realty's footprint. He began building Brookside apartments, a three-phase, 171-unit complex in St. Albans Town, in 2010. He also bought the apartments at 300 Main Street in Winooski, the 24-unit complex where Shangalume and Mamy later lived, from fellow developer Ernie Pomerleau. Then, in 2011, he acquired five developments that had been constructed in the early 2000s by Homestead Design: Arbor Gardens in Colchester, Monarch Apartments in Essex Junction, the Whittier Building in Essex Town Center, Sunrise Settlement in Quechee and Stony Creek in Wilder.

Most of these projects had been constructed with help from one or two federal programs that fund much of Vermont's affordable housing. The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board had awarded hundreds of thousands in federal deferred loans. The nonprofit Vermont Housing Finance Agency separately awarded the projects millions in low-income housing tax credits that developers typically pass on to investors as a way to raise capital.

The former Homestead Design buildings had been managed by an outside company, Massachusetts-based E.P. Management. Bove initially continued the arrangement, even putting Victoria Place and Brookside under E.P.'s umbrella, according to public records. 

VHFA and VHCB occasionally inspect properties that receive federal support, such as the buildings overseen by E.P. The agencies' records show relatively few problems at Bove's new apartment buildings while E.P. was in place, but Bove's relationship with the company didn't last. E.P. sued the Bove brothers in January 2018 for more than $140,000 in unpaid invoices. The suit was quickly dismissed after Rick Bove paid, but E.P. decided that the arrangement had become untenable and stopped overseeing most Bove buildings, according to principal Jonathan Ziner. 

"The way we wanted the buildings to be and the way they were becoming was not up to our standards," Ziner said. "So we made a business decision."

'Rick is not supportive'

click to enlarge Bove's pasta sauce factory in Milton - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Bove's pasta sauce factory in Milton

Several regulators interviewed for this story said the conditions at most Bove apartment buildings declined once Bove began bringing the management in-house. In May 2018, for example, VHFA's inspector found 32 separate maintenance issues at Monarch Apartments. Its market appeal had "deteriorated drastically," the inspector wrote in a report to Bove.

As problems began stacking up at the rentals, the Bove family was marking the next big phase of its food business. Mark hosted an emotional grand opening in September 2018 at the brothers' new sauce production factory in Milton. The event featured Gov. Phil Scott, who lauded the family for furthering the three goals of his administration: growing the economy, making the state more affordable and protecting the most vulnerable. "The Bove family is doing all three of those in many, many different ways," Scott said. 

A Burlington activist and organizer saw a different story unfolding. Charles Winkleman, best known today as the target of former Burlington police chief Brandon del Pozo's anonymous social media posts, launched a Boycott Bove's campaign that depicted the family as "slumlords" and broadcast tenant horror stories online. 

The campaign garnered little media attention, but regulators at VHFA and VHCB took note, emails between the organizations show. Inspectors were even struggling to gain access to the Bove buildings, at one point getting inside through a door that had a broken lock.

Bove, in a brief conversation to schedule an interview for this story, attributed past challenges at his properties to a former property manager, whom he said was the only employee he ever fired, and the tenants she allowed to rent. Seven Days and VPR were unable to reach that former property manager.

Another person who has worked for Bove, who requested anonymity for fear of legal action, said the landlord himself was the problem. He personally reviewed maintenance requests, the person said, and frequently cut corners.

"It just seemed to me that he was trying to squeeze every cent out of people he could without having to spend anything himself," the person said.

By mid-2019, Bove had just one property manager for at least eight housing complexes, emails obtained through public records requests indicate. The remaining manager was a veteran of the Burlington Housing Authority named Deb McCaffrey. McCaffrey, who still works for Bove and said he told her not to comment for this story, pleaded with VHCB and VHFA for patience as she tried to manage an overwhelming workload and a boss who was upset about empty units. 

"Rick is not supportive at all," she wrote in a July 2019 email to VHCB. "If things don't improve soon, he won't have anyone, because I can't take the stress."

This was uncharted territory for the funding agencies that had supported many of the buildings now under Bove's control. Leaders at VHFA and VHCB decided to jointly pressure Bove to address what VHCB's leaders described as a "bleak" situation.

They took the unprecedented step of threatening to claw back the years-old public subsidies, which totaled millions of dollars. In a previously unpublicized effort, each organization wrote to Bove's attorney in August and September 2019 stating that he was in violation of the loan and tax credit agreements.

They got Bove's attention. His attorney, Robert Rushford of Gravel & Shea, passed on Bove's assurance that the issues would be "quickly resolved." Rushford added that Bove had added more workers to his maintenance crew. Many of the most urgent problems were addressed, but more than a month later, fire doors at Arbor Gardens and Monarch still hadn't been repaired. VHCB officials threatened to hire someone to do the work and send the bill to Bove.

That's when the doors finally got fixed.

Pest control

click to enlarge The former Bove's Café building on Pearl Street in Burlington - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • The former Bove's Café building on Pearl Street in Burlington

Jerry Firkey remembers the first time he saw a cockroach. Decades ago, he and his wife were renting an apartment above a store when one night they came home, flipped on the lights and saw their kitchen counters move.

"I got out as fast as I could — I wasn't there six months," Firkey said. "My wife wouldn't handle that."

The next time Firkey encountered an infestation, it was at a building under his purview as Essex's town health officer, a position he's held for more than 30 years. In that role, Firkey, 81, is responsible for enforcing the state's housing standards. The part-time job pays $797 per month.

Most Vermont towns rely on low-paid or volunteer health officers such as Firkey to keep tabs on rental properties. There is no system of regular inspection, and their oversight is typically limited to responding to complaints. 

In August 2019, just as state-level organizations were working to force Bove into compliance, Firkey received a complaint about Monarch Apartments. He found a cockroach infestation so pervasive that he put up signs around the building to notify all residents. Firkey directed Bove's property manager to hire a pest control company to treat the situation.

By late October, there were signs that the infestation had abated. Miller Pest Control emailed Firkey to say that, aside from a few "hot apartments," the infestation was nearly eliminated. Firkey closed out the code violation on the understanding that Bove would continue the roach control.

In December, Firkey learned that Bove hadn't paid the pest company and that, as a result, Miller's exterminators hadn't been inside the building for more than two months. Documents hint at one reason why. In a draft memo to tenants prepared just before Christmas, Bove blamed the residents for the ongoing infestation and planned to tell them they'd have to pay for any further roach treatments, Village of Essex Junction records show. 

Cockroach infestations are among the trickier challenges an apartment owner can face. They are serious health hazards, but mitigation can take months and require significant cooperation between landlord and tenants to ensure traps are set and changed frequently. Language barriers and housekeeping practices can add to the challenge. So can creating an environment in which tenants are afraid to report cockroach sightings, experts say.

"Passing blame along to residents — it hurts everything in the long run," said Zach DeVries, an assistant professor of urban entomology at the University of Kentucky. "The problem is going to get worse and worse."

Firkey ordered Bove to restart the cockroach treatment "immediately" or face potential enforcement action. He complied.

See you in court

click to enlarge Angie Menard - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Angie Menard

While Firkey was trying to eliminate the cockroaches in Essex, Shangalume and Mamy, who still didn't know who their landlord was, were trying to get rid of the bugs in their Winooski apartment. Their caseworker, they said, had recommended they treat the problem themselves. They tried cleaning and using chemicals from a drug store, but it wasn't working. The cockroaches, Shangalume said through an interpreter, were "all over." 

"Sometimes [we] found cockroaches in [our] food," he said. "But what are we going to do? We didn't have help at the time."

Just across a parking lot, in a separate row of apartments in the same complex, Amy Brunelle and her 16-year-old daughter moved into a unit a few weeks after the Congolese couple arrived. When Brunelle toured the place, she said, she'd noticed several bug "bombs" in the unit. The property manager, she said, assured her that there was no problem. That was reassurance enough for Brunelle, who at the time was living at a family member's house and working at a convenience store.

"We didn't think it was a big deal. And, of course, I was desperate and needed a place to live," she said. 

Upon moving in, Brunelle opened the dishwasher and found cockroaches inside. They were in the attic and in the laundry room, too. Brunelle was afraid to sit on the toilet seat in the dark, fearing that the bugs would crawl out of the bowl.

She filed a complaint with the City of Winooski in August 2019. The city inspection the following month noted that the roaches had gotten into Brunelle's smoke alarms, causing them to malfunction. By that point, Brunelle had paid Bove $8,784 for six months of rent.

Winooski city files note cockroach issues at 300 Main Street dating back to 2016 — before the residents interviewed for this story moved in — when another resident, in a complaint to the city, wrote that the bugs were "scaring the children." A photo from the time showed roaches and roach droppings blanketing a wall panel. One unit had an infestation in 2018, too. 

Cockroaches aren't the only documented problem. Winooski, unlike Essex, has a municipal housing code and an enforcement division embedded in its fire department. The office generally inspects rental units every four years and issues "certificates of fitness" to those that pass. City records show, however, that most of the 24 units at 300 Main haven't had valid certificates of fitness since 2018, when they failed initial inspections.

Gaps in city records provide no insight into what came next. But John Audy, Winooski's code enforcement director, acknowledged that his office hadn't followed up on the 2018 inspections to ensure that Bove had addressed the various violations. He also said that 300 Main was "becoming a challenging property for the city."

"There appears to be a lack of maintenance and participation going on," he said during an August interview. 

Nearly half of the tenants at 300 Main receive rental assistance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 program, in which state and local housing authorities make direct payments to private landlords. A voucher holder pays 30 percent of their income toward the total rent; HUD pays the balance.

Most of the Winooski units are occupied by immigrant families, who, like Shangalume and Mamy, are frequently steered to a property through caseworkers. The Vermont office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants did not respond to interview requests.  

After more than a year of coping with the infestation, Shangalume and Mamy got help from a clinical social worker when Mamy went to the hospital for a pregnancy checkup. The social worker got them in touch with an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid who helped them get Bove to send in pest control.

When they moved out, they found that Bove had deducted $625 from their $1,464 security deposit for the five cockroach treatments. He returned the balance to them.

Vermont rental housing code states that a landlord is responsible for an infestation if it's in two or more units, or if it's caused by their "failure to maintain" the property. Earlier this year, Shangalume and Mamy filed a small-claims case with the help of their Legal Aid attorney seeking return of the $625, plus another $625 in damages. The case is pending: Bove's one-sentence, handwritten reply to the lawsuit states that cockroaches weren't present when they signed the lease. 

"We will be happy if we can have our money back, because I believe it is our right," Shangalume said last month from the living room of his family's new, bug-free apartment, where long tapestries covered the walls and clean dishes were stacked neatly above the sink of their tiny kitchen. Mamy coddled their new infant next to him. 

The family is one of nearly a dozen former Bove tenants who have sued the landlord in the last decade to reclaim security deposits.

In most of those filings, the tenants complained that Bove and his managers stopped responding to messages after they'd moved out. In two cases filed in 2019, before the pandemic, plaintiffs won default judgments because Bove never responded to their complaints. Nor did he appear at follow-up court hearings earlier this year about his ability to pay. During one of them, the judge suggested that the former tenant look into whether she could garnish Bove's wages. Bove recently paid up, the tenant said, roughly two years after she moved out.

To Angie Menard, a former tenant at 300 Main, Bove's evasiveness seemed like a strategy. She and her two children had been model tenants, Bove later told a judge, but when she moved out in 2017, he never released her security deposit or offered an explanation. Bove had done the same thing a year earlier to her sister, Miranda, who lived in a different apartment in the same complex. 

"He is purposely disregarding the law, and making his tenants go through this process hoping it will be more trouble than what it is worth," Menard wrote in her small claims complaint. "It is not fair and I am hoping the judge will make him pay this time so he understands this is unacceptable."

She won. But in a way, Bove had. Menard disclosed to the court that a nonprofit social services agency had paid a little more than half of her $1,190 security deposit. Menard wasn't entitled to that money, Bove contended, and Judge Ian Carleton agreed. So even after Menard got her portion back, plus damages, court filing and service fees, the total Bove was ordered to pay was $66 less than the security deposit that he'd originally received.

Putting out dumpster fires

click to enlarge Overflowing dumpsters at  a Bove complex in Essex Town Center - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Overflowing dumpsters at a Bove complex in Essex Town Center

The Town of Essex has long envisioned its so-called Town Center as a bustling hub that attracts moviegoers to the Essex Cinemas and residents to manicured apartment buildings with restaurants on the first floor. 

The vision does not include dumpsters overflowing with reeking trash and the buzzing flies they attract. That is what the town has at one corner of the Town Center, where Rick Bove manages a series of commercial and mixed-use buildings on Carmichael Street.

Town officials have been sparring with Bove over the state of his dumpsters for four years. They took him to court in 2019 after amassing considerable photo evidence of the recurring mess. The sides reached a settlement a year later; the complaints didn't stop. 

As part of the deal, Bove gave the town permission to call his trash hauler and order a pickup at his expense if any unsightly or unsanitary refuse went neglected for 24 hours. The increasingly exasperated zoning administrator and deputy health officer, Sharon Kelley, made the call in March of this year. Myers refused to come, according to her notes from the call, because Bove was in arrears on his account. So in August, Kelley took a different tack. She told Bove she'd fine him $200 per dumpster per day, the maximum allowed, if he didn't take care of the latest offense. By day's end, Bove sent her photos of well-groomed containers. "As you can see all the dumpster areas look great!" he wrote. "I know because I did it myself!"

There is a simpler and more durable solution, Kelley said. Bove could pay to have the trash picked up more often. He could also hire an on-site property manager. Instead, the dumpsters still overflow, and she and the landlord continue to send emails with photos of trash back and forth. According to Kelley, they may soon be headed back to court.

"I'm frustrated that he doesn't have pride in his property," she said.

Problems such as this erupt in other communities, involving different landlords, across Vermont. State government does not proactively enforce housing codes and lacks regulators who might pressure landlords to fix up their property. So the task of dealing with large landlords who are chronically noncompliant often falls to town health officers. They work in isolation from one another and may be ill-equipped to spar with the businesses they police.

Last year, legislators passed a bill that would have been a step toward change. It would have created a statewide public rental registry and enlisted the Division of Fire Safety as a state housing code enforcer. Gov. Scott vetoed it. The governor asserted that the solution to the state's housing crisis "is not more regulation."

In cities and towns with their own code enforcement systems, the results have still been inconsistent, Seven Days and VPR found. Even when officials do pursue Bove, it's time-consuming and the fixes are temporary.

Burlington, which has perhaps Vermont's most robust code enforcement office, has kept serious problems at bay through persistence and a regimented inspection process. Still, compliance is fleeting.

Director of permitting and inspections Bill Ward told Burlington policy makers in 2017, when the city council was considering a deal to sell Bove a parking lot to accommodate his pending plan to redevelop the Bove's Café site, that the landlord's Queen City holdings had improved. Around that time, the notorious George Street property finally got its long-awaited renovation, for which Bove received a historic preservation award from Preservation Burlington. But this year, a round of routine city inspections begun in August has already identified more than 150 deficiencies across Bove's Burlington buildings — what Ward described in an interview as unacceptable "backsliding."

Nearly 100 Bove apartments are occupied by Section 8 voucher holders. The agencies that administer the program in Vermont must inspect units before the subsidy begins and once every two years, or when they get a complaint.

VSHA, the largest housing authority in Vermont, has refused to grant rent increases for several units at Arbor Gardens in Colchester that are set aside for Section 8. Why? Bove hasn't disclosed his operating expenses, said Reenie Sargent, a field representative for the housing authority. "I just wonder," she said, "what is he doing with the money, if he's not investing it in the building?"

Sargent briefly withheld Section 8 payments to Bove earlier this year when he failed to rectify a recurring trash disposal problem at Arbor Gardens. In response, Bove directed his property manager, McCaffrey, to tell the Section 8 residents to pay the full rent themselves or move out, according to emails obtained through a public records request to VSHA. Sargent then sent an urgent letter to the tenants instructing them not to pay Bove anything extra. Bove was "in the wrong," she wrote. She released the Section 8 payments a few weeks later when the dumpster areas appeared cleaner.

As Sargent was pressuring Bove, a separate inspector with the Winooski Housing Authority, which has Section 8 clients in the same building, found the place to be in full compliance, records show. WHA executive director Katherine Decarreau said the trash probably wasn't overflowing on the particular day her inspector visited.

HUD can disbar bad actors from receiving government contracts or funds. The publicly available list includes no Vermont companies. Berk, VSHA's director, said the maneuver is "very difficult" absent a grave violation. 

"Certainly, if we didn't have just cause, that could be a reason for him to turn around and sue us, because we're seriously impacting his business," she said. Berk added that VSHA may need to confer with other Vermont housing organizations about Bove's compliance record.

For now, housing agencies have learned to live with landlords like Bove. They don't have much of a choice.

"Landlords really do have a choice, and they can opt to rent to a higher-income family, somebody who is working, who is able to pay more than the families that we serve, and not be bothered with the biennial housing inspection," Berk said.

Still, when one of her voucher recipients selects a Bove property, Sargent wants them to know what they're getting into. "I always let people know, 'You know, this is Bove,'" she said.

There are some signs that Bove's track record may stand in the way of further expansion. In 2017, VHFA's board of commissioners did not award Bove low-income housing tax credits for his proposal to redevelop the former J.J. Newberry building in Newport. The agency alluded to management issues in its notes on the proposal. Bove is currently trying to resell the still-vacant building, which sits across from the ignominious pit left by EB-5 swindlers.

But Bove has several other new housing developments in the works. Essex town staff recommended over the summer that the Planning Commission reject one plan because it didn't comply with zoning; town officials advised that Bove should be required to hire on-site management for any approved project, citing his history of noncompliance. Bove's performance in Burlington was also raised as a point of discussion in whether to approve his proposed Pearl Street redevelopment — not unlike 20 years ago, when Bove won approval for his first major apartment complex, Victoria Place, on the same block. The project was approved in March 2020, but the permits have since expired, and Bove may need to reapply before construction commences.

In Winooski, code enforcement officer Audy recently received another complaint about 300 Main. The complaint, lodged by a tenant through a school liaison, alleged that roaches were present in the same unit where Shangalume and Mamy had lived until late last year. 

Audy's team confirmed the infestation, as well as a broken door lock, in August. The findings prompted their return in October for a new round of complex-wide inspections.

Audy described the regimen as an attempt to press the "reset button" at the property, given that past issues with code compliance were compounded by the city's spotty oversight. In other words, despite years of documented problems, he was working as if Bove had a clean slate.

The October inspections turned up significant maintenance needs. None of the fire extinguishers had been serviced. Kitchen counters and cabinets needed to be replaced. One bathroom was blanketed in mold, and Audy ordered Bove to "gut" the room to get rid of it. Nine units were infested with cockroaches.

This time, Audy said, the city intends to follow up.

Full written statement of Rick Bove

"Bove Brother's Rental Properties is proud of our participation in the community. We provide clean and safe affordable housing in a market where rental costs have risen to a level well above what working people can afford. From time to time, there may be repairs or cleaning that is required to maintain the apartments. We respond promptly to calls for repairs. We work collaboratively with tenants and the City to meet code requirements. Bove Brother's disputes any allegation that we are not good landlords. Any balanced consideration of our recent record demonstrates our commitment to providing affordable and safe housing."

Correction, November 12, 2021: The Essex Planning Commission has yet to act on staff recommendations that it reject an application from Rick Bove. A previous version of this story contained an error.

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About The Authors

Derek Brouwer

Derek Brouwer

Derek Brouwer is a news reporter at Seven Days, focusing on law enforcement and courts. He previously worked at the Missoula Independent, a Montana alt-weekly.

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